Sequoia High School

Sheryl Sandberg to Sequoia High School: What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?

By Sheryl Sandberg • June 12, 2013
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Sheryl Sandberg asked Sequoia graduates: What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Watch video of her speech.

On June 7, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg delivered a commencement speech to 386 graduates of Sequoia High School, a mixed income school in Redwood City, Calif., and the oldest high school in San Mateo County. She challenged these students — 97 percent of whom will go on to college – to ask themselves: What would you do if you weren’t afraid? The following is the text of that commencement speech:

Congratulations to Sequoia’s graduating Class of 2013!

I am so happy to join you today and celebrate your achievement.  I hope that each of you is feeling truly proud to have reached this milestone. I can tell you, as a mother myself, it goes double for your family.  Seriously, their hearts are bursting right now.

So let your family hug you for as long as they want after this ceremony.  Trust me, they will look back at photos and think, “That was one of the happiest days of my life.”  And you will look back on the same photos and think, “God, my hair looked stupid.”

As I thought about what I wanted to say to you today, I reflected on the many graduation speeches I have heard.  The best speeches had two qualities:  they were relevant… and they were brief.  I will try to be both.  As a side note, of course I encourage you to use Facebook as much as possible, but please refrain from posting any “Sheryl Sandberg is boring” comments – at least until I am done.

It is an honor for me to be at this incredible school today.  Sequoia high school is a shining example of what can work in US education.  I see in your school a model of what is possible when we believe that all students can learn and we include all voices in our discussions.

A few weeks ago, I asked your amazing Principal Bonnie about the students in this class. She told me all about the fortitude, compassion and achievements of the students graduating today. Many of you started here as quiet, shy freshman, and are graduating as strong, confident seniors heading to college. Many of you have overcome real challenges to get here today – balancing school, family responsibilities and work to help your families make ends meet; worrying daily about your immigration status – caused by laws I believe so deeply need to change.  And you have done all of this while not just  doing the hard work you needed to do to get to this day, but while also contributing to your community – from starting clubs for STEM outreach in elementary schools, raising money for the American Cancer Society, and volunteering to teach kids in East Palo Alto.  It was extremely moving to see so many of you stand up as the first in your families to graduate from high school – and then to see so many of you stand again to say that you are headed to college.

Given the spirit and drive you have, I decided what I wanted to tell you today is simple – to believe in yourselves.  Don’t let anyone put limits on you.  Think about what you have already done to make it to this great day – and know that you can do anything you set out to do.  Know that you can and will graduate from college, just as you are graduating from high school today.  Know that you can and will have any job you want.  Know that if you want to, you can have a family and provide for that family.  Know that you can and will contribute in your own way to making the world a better place.

Earlier this year, I published a book called Lean In which argues that we need true equality in the world for women.  It turns out – get ready for this shocker – that men – largely white men – still run the world. I believe that the world would be a better place if it were more equal – if we gave all of our children the education they deserve, if we had leaders of different genders and backgrounds who questioned the status quo, if we had people with different perspectives at the tables where decisions are made from boardrooms to town halls.

In Lean In, I talk about the importance of self-confidence – how believing you can do something is the first step to doing it. Now for some, self-confidence comes more naturally. When my brother and I were both in high school, one day we both had dates – yes, I know, I’m so old that back then we scheduled actual dates.  And, as it turned out, our dates canceled on both of us at the last minute.  I spent the rest of the weekend moping around the house worrying about all the things that were wrong with me that made the guy blow me off.  My brother decided the girl had “missed out on a great thing” and went off to play basketball with his friends.

I joke with my brother to this day that I want to spend a few minutes as him – it must feel oh so good to be that confident.  But in reality, even he has moments where he doubts himself.  We all do.

Freshman year of college was a huge shock for me.  I went to high school in Miami in the 1980s where I distinguished myself by being one of the least cool students – often called a “nerd” by my classmates.  This was not a compliment.  I headed to college and first semester, I took a course on Greek mythology called Heroes.  This course was the easiest way to fulfill the literature requirement – and it was nicknamed Heroes for Zeroes.  The professor began the first lecture by asking which students had already read these books. Almost every single hand went up.  Not mine.  I whispered to my friend sitting next to me, “What books?”  The professor then asked, “And who has read these books in the original?” “What original?” I asked my friend. “Greek,” she replied.  I asked her, “People actually speak Greek?” It seemed pretty clear that I was one of the zeroes.

This is where believing in yourself is so important.  On that day, I felt so intimidated – I wondered if I had been accepted to college by accident, if I could keep up with my fellow classmates for even that one class.  I had to believe that I was just as smart and capable as they were – and then I had to study harder than they had to in order to catch up.

Every task before us will not be easy.  We don’t always know for sure that we can do something – especially if we have never done it before.  Believing in yourself doesn’t mean strolling into every situation confident that you have all the necessary knowledge and skills.  It means that you believe you can acquire that knowledge and those skills.  It means believing you can rise to meet the challenge.  And remember, any challenge that you can meet effortlessly is not really a challenge.

This also holds true in the workforce.  On my first day of my first job out of college, my boss asked me to calculate some numbers. I had no idea how to do it so I asked him.  He said, “Just put it into a spreadsheet–use Lotus 1-2-3.”  Yes, again I am old – Lotus 1-2-3 is an early spreadsheet program that went away so long ago that none of you have ever heard of it. I told him that I didn’t know how to do that. “Wow,” he exclaimed. “I can’t believe you got this job without knowing that.”  I went home in tears, convinced that I was going to get fired.

The next day, when I got into work, my boss sat me down. My heart was pounding.  But instead of firing me, he taught me how to use the program.  And he taught me something far more important as well.  He taught me to ask for help when I needed it.

None of us gets through everything alone.  And none of us can know all of the answers.  Part of what enables me to try things I am not sure I can do is that I know that I can always reach out and ask for help.  It isn’t a weakness to admit what you don’t know or what you can’t do.  It’s a strength.  We all need help – and feeling comfortable asking for it is a huge part of being successful.

I see too many people holding themselves back because they feel intimidated.  I see too many people sitting on the side of the room, when they should be sitting at the table.  I see too many lowering their hands when they should raising them up higher.  Too many lowering their voices when they should be speaking up.  And too many struggling alone, when they should be asking for help.

We can’t always believe in ourselves as much as we should.  I don’t always feel as self-confident as my brother – and many of the tables I needed to sit at in my life were filled with people who looked nothing like me, usually because they were all men.  Over the years, I learned that even when I feel like I don’t belong at that table – and yes, this still happens to me – I sit there anyway.  And when I see things differently than everyone else around me – and I am not sure I am right or that anyone wants to hear it even if I am — I take a deep breath and speak up anyway.

Your life’s course will not be determined by doing the things that you are certain you can do.  Those are the easy things.  It will be determined by whether you try the things that are hard.  The classes that seem impossible on the first day, but you study hard enough to pass.  The jobs you want, realize you are not qualified for, and then work like crazy to get the necessary skills.  The moments when you feel alone, ask for help, and create a bond with someone because working together helps them as well as you. The times when you see things nobody else sees, and fear speaking out but you speak out anyway… and convince everyone else. Those are the moments where you can have real impact.

Don’t let yourself off the hook by deciding that something is out of your reach.  You’ll never know what you’re capable of unless you try. If you believe in yourself and are willing to ask for help, you can do anything – absolutely anything.

This how your generation can become the Lean In Generation.  The generation that knows no boundaries, fears no fears, and changes the world.

At Facebook, we have posters hung on walls all around our campus.  They say things in big, bold red letters – slogans that we think are important. One says “Fortune favors the bold”.  Another says “Done is better than perfect”.  My favorite says “what would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

As you graduate today, I wish for you 3 things:

  1. That you keep in touch via Facebook.  This is critical to your future success.
  2. That you know about yourself what we all know about you – that you can do more than you think is possible.
  3. That tomorrow after you recover from your grad party, you consider this question:  “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”  Think of your answer.  Write it down.  And if you want to share it, join us at www.leanin.org.  Or take a picture of yourself with your answer and post it to Instagram — hashtag #notafraid. If you do this, you will inspire others as you have inspired me.  But whether you chose to share your answer with or just keep it to yourself, commit yourself to dreaming big and then making that dream come true.

If you do this, you will be the Lean In Generation – the generation that creates a more equal – and better – world.  A world where all voices are heard.  A world where everyone has a seat at the table.

So today, on this day of celebration, celebrate by asking yourself, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?”  And then lean in and go do it.

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